President Obama's controversial vision for America's space program may have already come face to face with fiscal reality. NASA largely dodged major cuts under his proposed budget released today, but the plan reveals some significant reallocation of funds and doesn't appear to include any of the $6 billion boost that he promised to provide over five years.
The total amount budgeted for NASA matches 2010's funding of $18.7 billion, but the plan strips nearly $2 billion from the Space Operations program, which is responsible for operating the space shuttle and International Space Station. This reduction is based largely on the shuttle program drawing to an end (the last flight is scheduled this year), as well as a planned merger of the two directorates.
Funding for NASA's Exploration directorate got a bump, funneling dollars to the programs developing the next generation of space vehicles and technology.
Last year, Obama scuttled a Bush-era plan to return to the moon and called for more privatization, as well as missions to an asteroid and Mars. To meet those goals, however, the president proposed a $6 billion surge in funding over the next five years. Without any of that money, analysts say the current plan amounts to a budget cut.
The question now is how Obama's NASA plan will fare in the budget-slashing frenzy in Congress, where House Republicans have called for a $379 million cut for the space agency's budget. However, politicians traditionally have been loathe to cut the jobs the space program provides, a concern that crosses party lines.
On February 4, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sent a letter to Obama in which he urged the president to preserve the compromises worked out last year. So far it appears that Obama has heeded that call. The test now becomes whether Congress will, too.